Let's Talk About It
Doctors aren't the only ones who go through burnout. A friend from high school wrote this in her own space. The original article can be found here. It is incredibly well written, and is such an important lesson, so I can't recommend enough that you read it.
If you don't wish to click, I asked permission to post the article on this website. (Let's face it, she really didn't need the extra clicks on her site from the 13 or 14 of you who read it here).
The article is presented in its entirety. Once again, her original post is in the blogsite Noteworthy
The potting shed. Closed for business.
I’m ready to talk about it.
It’s been almost three years, and I’m finally ready to talk about it. In spring 2015, I walked away from a company I’d built. This company was the accomplishment I was proudest of in a life of accomplishments, the dream I’d been pursuing for years. I walked away without fanfare, quietly slipping into a new professional life that made me feel supremely lucky, like I’d fallen hard but landed on a soft cushion that I was surprised to find beneath me.
Nipping at my heels were the torturous emotions: extreme sadness, regret, shame, anger. The fallout: depression, anxiety, weight gain, tarnished self-esteem, and an empty retirement account. And admittedly, extreme relief and gratitude: that I got out while I still could, that more hadn’t been ruined, that I’d narrowly avoided destroying my financial future, my marriage, and my mental and physical health. Maybe even, at the risk of sounding dramatic, my actual life.
But I didn’t talk about it.
I had felt so alone through all of this. My husband, who had been supportive for so long, was pretty much over it. My employees were (rightly) worried about their own jobs and livelihoods. No one really understood, and those who did were tired of hearing about it. My new job brought a new set of happy challenges, and no one at my behemoth social media company really cared about my rinky-dink former business. So, I kept it to myself. It was over. I’d walked away with a massive amount of financial debt, an office full of expensive furniture I couldn’t use anymore and nobody else wanted, friends and former colleagues who were pissed at me. But I’d landed on my feet, and there was hope.
I did try to talk about it a little sometimes. I thought I would be candid and share my experience with others. And I discovered I couldn’t even begin the story without crying. This is still true, actually. When people ask “What happened? Why did you decide to come in-house rather than stay self-employed?”, I feel myself on the verge of choking up and and cheerfully change the subject. I haven’t dealt with it emotionally. It’s still bottled up in there.
I just celebrated my two-and-a-half year anniversary at my job, a milestone that coincided with paying off the last of the $250,000 in business debt I’d accumulated. And now it’s time to face it. When I considered writing about my experience, I always expected the theme to be failure: how much it hurts, the silver lining of it, how it’s good to fail, yadda yadda yadda, all the things we like to talk about in Silicon Valley. But now that I’m finally writing it, I realize I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about the real, underlying issue: burnout.
Burnout is the car crash you don’t see coming.
I work alongside some of the smartest, most ambitious people I’ve ever known. A lot of them are much younger than I am. I’m in my mid-40s now, but I see my younger self so much in these 20-something and 30-something colleagues. For that reason, I see future burnout everywhere I look. Some of my younger colleagues are people who work all weekend long. People who, almost as a badge of honor, accrue PTO to the point that the company sends them threatening messages. People who message the team at 11:30 on Saturday night to talk about a problem that needs to be worked out right now. People who come to work with strep throat or the stomach flu because they simply can’t miss their meetings. People whose personal relationships are suffering because they work too much. And lots, lots, of people talking about mental health issues. Our company recognizes this and tries to encourage balance, but it’s a young culture full of smart, ambitious people, and this is what happens.
I’m the motherly one who is always warning them: you’re going to burn out. You need to take care of yourself. Get sleep, rest on weekends, stay off Messenger at night. They ignore me. They love to work! Work is their life! Why should they slow down when they feel so motivated and excited by what they’re doing?
I totally get it. Because until a few years ago, I had always been that person, inwardly driven to take on the world. I loved to work. I was good at it. By contrast, I’d always had a hard time with things most people are naturals at: making friends, hanging out casually, partying, relaxing, having hobbies. Work was what came naturally to me.
Overcommitment has always been my schtick. I had a chronic habit of taking on huge volumes of work, committing to many different things at once. I loved the high of winning new opportunities and pursuing new experiences, and then slogged through the stressful reality of having to finish it all without disappointing anyone.
There was a dangerous quality to overcommitment that I thrived on. In high school, I was so overcommitted that I was perpetually crisis-level stressed out. (My closest friends were the ones with whom I could bond about our acute stress.) The pattern continued through college when I took on extra writing and on-campus jobs on top of honors classes and heavy schedules, then through my 20s when I worked constantly, laboring at freelance book projects and article-writing after working into the late evening for my day job. Even as recently as last year, I was working a full-time job, finishing an MBA, and running a huge talent show at my kid’s school all at the same time. At any moment, all the plates I had spinning in the air threatened to crash down around me, but I felt a rush and a sense of pride at being able to precariously keep them spinning.
So when I began to freelance after my daughter was born, leaving my full-time (very stressful) corporate job to go independent, perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that within a few months I bit off way more than I could chew in work commitments. After years of corporate life, I was hungry for the freedom to work on many different kinds of projects and develop new experiences across disciplines. Within a few weeks, several clients engaged me to manage large, complex, long-term projects — websites, messaging platforms, brand videos. It was exhilarating. I felt stimulated and excited and was bursting with pride about this new thing I was building on my own.
Reality soon set in. There were never enough hours in the day. My original plan of taking Fridays off and spending more time with my daughter went out the window. I worked constantly, day and night. At first I loved it. Then I didn’t. I started having careless accidents — spilling coffee in my computer, leaving wads of cash in the ATM machine. I got pneumonia and ended up in the ER. My body and brain were sending signals that this wasn’t sustainable. I tried to take an August sabbatical the year after I started my business, but kept taking breaks from my month off to work on “just one more project” as new opportunities came up. I didn’t know how to turn it off.
Finally, I hired a business coach. The dream that we developed together was to grow my one-woman show into a real company. I renamed my business and relaunched my brand, traipsing off to conferences to hand out my homemade business cards. I rented an office, hired my first employee, then another, and another. Suddenly everything started moving fast. The projects, clients, and money got bigger, the office and the overhead expanded, and everything started to change. I continued to commit to more and more, spinning those plates. Now, however, I had to completely change the way I worked, shifting responsibility to others while transforming my own role to that of CEO, salesperson, manager, figurehead. I didn’t know how to do that, and I was in a place where I needed to figure it out fast to survive.
I was already far gone by the time all of this began to happen. I didn’t know it yet. The exhilaration and rush, the stress, the out-of-control feelings all seemed familiar to me, so I didn’t recognize them as danger signs. Instead, I saw them as a phase of growth. I bought into the ideology of business that everyone was feeding to me. You have to spend money to make money. Bigger is better. Too much work is a good problem to have. Growth equals success. I took on a long-term office lease and invested in a remodel because I assumed we’d double in size. I stood up at a conference and boasted that we’d be a million-dollar company that year, because that felt like a goal I should have. (We never got there, but in truth we weren’t far off.)
But I was already burnt out. I was running on fumes, and I had no resources left at a time when the company needed more of me than ever. In spite of this, I was trying to move fast and aggressively, confident that I would be OK no matter what, because I always had been.
I wasn’t OK. I was crashing.
Elvis has left the potting shed.
The first sign was the insomnia. I started waking up in the middle of the night in a panic about how I was going to make it work: how to make the impossible deadline, make sure the receivables came in on time, fix an employee problem. Hours upon hours I would lie there trying to work it out. Some nights I thought I was dying, that I was having an aneurysm or some other cataclysmic medical event. (Big reveal: it was anxiety.)
Then the depression set in. I’d struggled with clinical depression in the past — it’s something my whole family deals with — but this time was bad. I came home every evening and crawled into bed. I was defensive and irritable and fought with my husband. I took little joy in anything, developed terrible anxiety and avoided social situations. I went through a period when I couldn’t watch TV or movies that were too grim (I only just recently caught up on “Breaking Bad” because I avoided it during that period). I was so depressed that I wanted to skip my 40th birthday. I didn’t feel like I had anything to celebrate.
Let’s just get this out in the open: I thought often about killing myself. Perhaps not
seriously, but I did think about it. I was convinced my family would be better off without me. I felt like a failure. In the aftermath of the recession, it became harder to get paid by clients, even though there was no shortage of work or receivables, so I often had to use personal credit cards or dip into my 401(k) to make payroll for my employees, and I often couldn’t pay myself. This made things very stressful for our household, and I felt like I was letting my husband down. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might drop a few plates, let alone that they might all fall out of the sky at the same time. When they finally did, I couldn’t deal with it.
Through all of this, I continued to work with my business coach. She was just as worried about my personal well-being as the company’s. One time, she told me a story about a client she’d had, a landscaper who loved her work and was extremely successful. She worked all the time, Linda told me. “Then one day, she just quit. She closed the door to her potting shed and that was it. She never went back. She hated her business so much, she stopped doing it, just like that.”
Linda looked me straight in the eye. “I don’t want to see that happen to you.” But it did happen. I hated my business by the end. I blamed myself, mostly, but I also felt abandoned, alone and angry. I resented that nobody cared about the success of my company as much as I did (which, in hindsight, was irrational but a sign of how alone I felt). I hated what the business had done to me, and I felt sick every time I thought about it.
After an excruciating period of having to lay off employees because I couldn’t afford my entire staff anymore, I was limping along, with no idea what would happen next. Some content strategist friends at Facebook encouraged me to come for a visit, then apply for a role there. For years, I’d been sure I would be a business owner for the rest of my career. But the job at Facebook sounded exciting, and my business felt like the boulder I just couldn’t push up the hill anymore. So I made the difficult decision to walk away.
The first year of my new job, I continued to take on a lot of work and spread myself thin, but the pure relief of knowing when my paycheck would arrive and not being responsible for anybody else’s livelihood made me feel so free that the job seemed simple in comparison. I had started an MBA and threw myself into that at night, which consumed me so much that I was able to avoid thinking about what had happened for a couple more years. As Linda had predicted, I’d closed the door to my potting shed and never went back.
The business continued to plague me. I had an office full of crap that I had to sell off piecemeal (and finally pay to haul away), a long-term office lease that I had to sublet and finally break, an SBA loan that seemed impossible to pay off, maxed-out credit cards, and a zero balance in my retirement account. There were ruined relationships and people I avoided, some of whom I still haven’t been able to bring myself to reconnect with (including my business coach, who I adore, but who knows my shame so intimately that I haven’t been able to face her).
And the aftermath of the burnout was brutal. The mental health repercussions lingered. I licked my wounds and felt sorry for myself. I made myself crazy pursuing new neuroses at my new job to make myself miserable. I began taking medication, which helped, and I started running, which helped even more. I can sleep through the night now, but definitely feel like I’m softer — I’m not as ambitious, competitive, or self-driving as I used to be. I like to tell myself that’s a good thing.
One of the biggest changes for me has been learning to turn down commitments. It’s hard. After finishing my master’s, I had hopes of resting and learning to be lazy, but it turns out I don’t know how to do it. I get antsy without a project. Part of my burnout recovery has been to fill my life with things that bring me joy and don’t require dangerous plate-spinning: learning to play an instrument, reading, working on personal writing projects, hiking. I’m trying to prioritize spending time with friends again, though I still eschew crowds of people. I’m moving more slowly and working hard to resist the urge to fill the space with obligations. And I’m excited about my next milestone birthday, because I plan to celebrate twice as much to make up for my sad and self-denying 40th.
Love your work with extreme care.
I will always be proud of what we, my co-workers and I, did during those years in business, and now I can tentatively start to look back in fondness, even though most of the time I avoid thinking about it. I’m still grieving. Mostly, I remember those years of burnout with a physical revulsion and tiptoe carefully around it so as not to reawaken it.
Burnout is a real thing. It happens when you least expect it. You may toil for years at the same pace and suddenly found yourself in the middle of burnout without even seeing it coming. It’s good to love your work. But you have to love it in moderation, because if you don’t, burnout will make you hate it, and it’s harder — much harder — to bounce back from that.
Which is why I’m going to keep nagging you, my dear friends and co-workers. I’m going to encourage you to spend time with your friends, to stop messaging our team at night, to go outside and spend time in the redwoods or at the coast. I’m going to remind you that work matters, but in the scheme of things, it kind of really doesn’t. The best way to preserve the passion and energy you have for your work is to take great care of your brain, your body and your soul; be kind to yourself, and protect the open spaces that allow you to relax and restore your resources. This is not New Age babble. This is reality. Trust me.
I’m glad we had this talk.